The typical American does not want to live to be 100.
In fact, the typical American does not even want to live to be as old as Strom Thurmond.
This comes as something of a surprise to South Carolina's senior senator, who is 96, and who this week interrupted his hectic Capitol Hill schedule to comment on an American Association of Retired Persons survey that pegged 91 years as many people's desired length of stay on the planet.
"If you've worked all your life, like I have, and have good health, like I have, I'd think you'd want to live as long as you can," Thurmond drawled.
Of the more than 2,000 men and women polled on their fears and hopes and notions about aging, only about 27 percent are aiming to hit triple digits. Even 91 is a stretch, according to the survey findings, given that the typical respondent expects to die a couple of months shy of 80.
"If you look at the obits, 80 is nothing!" exclaimed Julia Child, who remains the grande dame of cuisine at 86. From her home in Cambridge, Mass., she confessed to getting "a little creaky," especially in the knees, but insisted she has no plans to pack her pots and pans in five years.
"If I'm in good health and I've not gone bonkers," she laughed, "I'll just go on living."
As for legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, he's too busy to think about how long he once intended to stick around or, now that he's past 95, how much farther he hopes to go. Taking a break in his New York City studio, where several new assignments await him, he called the country's fixation on age a nuisance.
"It seems to me people are more interested in how long you're going to live than in what you're doing," he said bluntly.
In the AARP survey, nine out of 10 respondents across the country answered in the affirmative when asked if there are ways to stay active and healthy as they grow older. A majority claimed to be doing at least one of those things now, with exercise and diet the top answers.
So why the disconnect with how many years people anticipate living? Why do they seem so darn pessimistic?
"They still believe the stereotypes of aging," lamented AARP Chief of Staff Cheryl Cooper, ticking off ill health and poverty as the worst of those stereotypes. "They don't seem optimistic for some reason, and they don't believe things will be better for them."
However, for people turning 80 midway through the next century, it's a different story. More than half of those polled predict that medical breakthroughs by then will increase average life expectancy more than four decades--to 120 years. More than a quarter of the respondents think it will be possible in 2050 to deep-freeze the human body and bring a person back at a future date.
Just imagine what that would do to the graying of America. Already, the 85-plus crowd is the fastest-growing age group around.
Sammy Baugh, the sole surviving member of the original Redskins team of '37, became a member on his last birthday. "I can remember when, if you lived to be 60, you had lived a long time," he said with a chuckle.
Retired to a 10,000-acre ranch in Rotan, Tex., these days "Slingin' Sam" has his own prescription for longevity. "I don't do anything but play golf. . . . I wouldn't mind being 100 if I could still play golf."
Nor would 87-year-old Dorothy Height object to finding herself a centenarian. "I'd be delighted," responded the longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, just back from an African summit in Ghana. Other than a knee that annoys her, Height has few complaints at this point.
"I have an excellent memory," she declared, and "if God is willing," that acuity will endure and 100 candles on the cake would be a welcome celebration. "Friends say to me, 'You've never hesitated to tell your age.' Well, I say, 'Look at the alternative.' "
If anything, despite all the evidence showing seniors lasting longer than ever, with better health and more money, the AARP survey shows how shortsighted people can be.
From his office in Philadelphia, F. William Sunderman suggests they take a longer view.
Sunderman is a pathologist, chemist, toxicologist, author, editor and violinist (who plays a 1694 Stradivarius). He is four months shy of 101, an event that probably will find him working on the latest issue of the Annals of Clinical and Laboratory Scientists, which is the labor that this year earned him the title of America's Oldest Worker.
Told that the typical American apparently aspires only to reach 91, he scoffed. "I'd say why? Is there some reason for that?"
Sunderman, of course, is too busy for anything but living. Next week he'll be at Penn State University for a symposium. August will find him in Austria at a music conference.
What would he do otherwise? "Just wait around to die?" There is no way. "I have so much work to do I don't have enough time."
CAPTION: At 96, Sen. Strom Thurmond is five years older than people surveyed want to get.